Attachment, Regulation & Competency (ARC) Framework

Reviewed by therapist.com team

What Is the ARC Framework?

ARC stands for attachment, regulation, and competency. The ARC framework is designed to address areas of life negatively affected by complex trauma: mainly, attachment patterns, self-regulation, and basic developmental skills.

What Is Complex Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to a horrifying, stressful, or dangerous event, relationship, or circumstance that threatens or harms a person’s health and safety.

Acute trauma occurs in response to a single event at a single point in time. Examples of acute trauma include getting into a car accident, escaping a house fire, or surviving a robbery.

However, not all traumas fit this definition. Some traumatic events occur multiple times, such as incidents of domestic abuse. Others last for a long time, such as a deployment to a warzone. Trauma that is prolonged and/or repeated is known as chronic trauma.

Complex trauma involves multiple and varied traumatic events that usually involve an interpersonal element and a feeling of being trapped. Although complex trauma is often thought to be the same as chronic trauma, complex trauma typically occurs within the individual’s social environment and often begins in childhood.

Keep in mind that complex trauma is particularly detrimental because of its roots in childhood. Complex trauma negatively affects child development and can result in missed milestones as well as physical, mental, emotional, social, and behavioral struggles.

Who Is ARC For?

ARC was originally developed for children and teenagers who suffered from complex trauma. Because children and teens rely on their parents or other guardians for their well-being, the ARC framework requires participation from caregivers (or caregiving systems) as well. This framework of child and family/system treatment can be adapted and applied to a variety of situations and settings, including:

  • School
  • Foster care
  • Group homes
  • Hospitals
  • Juvenile correction facilities
  • Group therapy
  • Youth centers

Building a Foundation for ARC Therapy

Before beginning treatment based on the ARC framework, it’s important to create a foundation of trust and understanding between the therapist, the child, and their caregiver(s). The three parts of this foundation are engagement, education, and routine.

Engagement: Committing to Therapy

A key part of the ARC framework is evaluating and improving the relationship between the child and their caregiver. This means that buy-in and engagement on the part of the caregiver are necessary. Without the caregiver’s involvement in the process, the ARC framework cannot be implemented as intended. Common barriers to caregiver engagement include:

  • Caregiver trauma/stress: The primary caregiver of the child may have their own unresolved trauma that needs to be addressed before or during ARC treatment.
  • Workplace obstacles: Long hours, unpredictable work schedules, and/or little to no PTO can prevent caregivers, particularly parents or guardians, from being able to participate in ARC therapy.
  • Lack of resources: ARC therapy requires the investment of time, energy, and finances. Some caregivers may not be able to afford ARC therapy for their child, in which case their therapist may offer discounted rates or compassionate payment plans. Other caregivers may be able to financially afford treatment but may be reluctant to commit the necessary time and energy.

Obstacles to engagement vary depending on who the caregiver is and what their relationship is to the child. For example, a working parent may struggle to find the time to participate in treatment, while a school may struggle to find money in their budget for an ARC program. ARC therapists should be prepared to address potential barriers to engagement head-on to prevent caregivers from resisting or rejecting their role in treatment later.

Education: Learning Mental Health Basics

ARC therapists need to lay a foundation of basic mental health education for both the child and their caregiver. This means tackling common misconceptions (e.g., the child is just poorly behaved, not traumatized) and addressing any stigma against mental health treatment. Additionally, it means creating an understanding for why the ARC framework involves not just the child, but also their system of care (parents, school teachers, staff at their treatment facility, etc).

Routine: Establishing a Safe Environment

Children struggling with complex trauma are likely to resist treatment that feels unpredictable, confusing, or out of control. ARC therapists can help their clients by creating a routine structure in therapy that provides a safe, predictable setting in which to address their problems and develop new skills.

3 Components of ARC Treatment

1. Attachment Patterns

The first part of the ARC model evaluates the child/caregiver relationship through the lens of attachment theory. Attachment theory states that people learn how to relate to or attach to others based on their experience as an infant attaching to their primary caregiver. This results in one of four basic attachment patterns:

  1. Anxious attachment: Children with anxious attachment, also known as ambivalent attachment, struggle and experience distress when their parent or caregiver leaves. Adults with anxious attachment styles may be perceived as clingy and spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their relationships.
  2. Avoidant attachment: Children with avoidant attachment do not seek comfort from their parents or caregivers. They have learned that their caregivers are unable to reliably meet their needs, so they overly rely on themselves instead. Adults with avoidant attachment may struggle to be vulnerable or intimate in their relationships.
  3. Disorganized attachment: Children with disorganized attachment experience a mix of anxious and avoidant behaviors. This attachment style develops when a child’s parent or caregiver—on whom they depend for comfort and safety—is also a source of fear or terror.. Adults with disorganized attachment tend to have chaotic and volatile relationships.
  4. Secure attachment: Children with secure attachment trust their parent or caregiver to meet their needs and provide comfort and safety. They are also able to separate from their caregiver without too much anxiety. Adults with secure attachment experience positive relationships based on trust and vulnerability.

An ARC therapist will determine which attachment styles are at work in the caregiver/child relationship and help both parties learn to establish healthier attachments by:

  • Creating rituals and routines to foster a safe, predictable environment
  • Working on the caregiver’s mental health and past trauma so they have the mental and emotional energy to attach to their child in a healthy way
  • Teaching the caregiver how to better attune to their child’s needs
  • Implementing a parenting style of praise and reinforcement to encourage the child in healthier behaviors

2. Self-Regulation

The second component of the ARC framework is self-regulation. Many children who experience complex trauma are unable to regulate their emotional experiences. Their bodies stay trapped in an acute stress response, limiting their options for emotional processing to:

  • Fight: Becoming aggressive in whatever way possible to assert control and dominance over the threat
  • Flight: Running away from or avoiding the threat at all costs
  • Freeze: Numbing or mentally removing themselves (e.g., dissociation) to protect themselves from the threat
  • Fawn: Trying to please others and avoid being perceived as a nuisance to neutralize the threat

In ARC therapy, children learn how to self-regulate. Self-regulation enables children to express their emotions in healthy, intentional ways instead of responding in unhealthy, instinctual patterns forged by trauma. Children improve their self-regulation skills by learning:

  • Awareness: Recognizing and correctly identifying their own emotions as well as the emotions of others
  • Modulation: Employing tactics to adjust their state of arousal to a tolerable level
  • Expression: Communicating their emotions in a safe, effective way

3. Developmental Competencies

Childhood is a critical time for self-development. Unfortunately, trauma disrupts typical developmental stages. Children who have experienced complex trauma may experience setbacks or struggles with:

  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Self esteem and sense of identity
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Appropriate behaviors
  • Emotion regulation

ARC therapy helps children address these developmental struggles by creating opportunities for:

  • Practicing self-agency
  • Connecting with others through meaningful relationships
  • Identifying and encouraging natural strengths and talents
  • Developing goals for future growth

Healing from Childhood Trauma

What Is the Goal of ARC?

The goal of ARC therapy is trauma experience integration. This means that a child is able to make meaning of disjointed, disconnected, and/or distressing experiences associated with their trauma and integrate what happened into their life story. They are able to accept what has happened without sweeping it under the rug, making light of it, feeling trapped by it, or reliving it endlessly. This allows them to re-engage fully with the present moment.

Therapy for Childhood Trauma

Browse our directory to find an ARC therapist for you or your child today. In addition to the ARC model, there are other forms of therapy that have proven effective for survivors of complex childhood trauma, including: